One of the biggest challenges for plastics recycling is identifying and sorting the variety of plastics.
As a result, five years ago, Ford Motor Co. of Dearborn, Mich., and Southampton University in England began researching identification systems to solve these problems.
They came up with a machine called PolyAna, developed 18 months ago and introduced to the market this year. PolyAna works by directing an infrared beam linked to a Nicolet spectrometer onto a piece of plastic. A sample of plastic is loaded against a shutter, much like the one in a camera.
The machine can identify nearly 1,000 different plastics, including blends and fillers, by comparing the results to information in its database. The data files also can record the manufacturer and supplier of the plastic.
A monitor displays the spectrum, allowing a skilled engineer to identify the plastic used. However, the developers have a software package to simplify and automate the process.
``We have found uses in markets we never imagined,'' said Peter Mucci, senior lecturer in Southampton University's faculty of engineering.
One such use is benchmarking: If two companies make the same product, one company may buy the competitor's item to compare it to its own.
This fall, PolyAna won the annual Horners Award for Plastics, awarded by the Worshipful Company of Horners and administered by the British Plastics Federation.
The award went jointly to Mucci and John Amner, Ford's automotive recycling specialist. The Horners Award is the oldest established award for plastics in the world, dating to 1945.
The system has five international patents that are owned by Ford but have Mucci and the university named on them.
A PolyAna system costs between £20,000 and £30,000 [$33,000 and $50,000], depending on additions to the equipment.
For example, an automatic shutter can be installed so that the operator does not have to press any buttons to get a plastics reading. Also, spoonfuls of granulated or pelletized material, not whole parts, can be placed on the shutter.
The firms also rent a portable version of the machine, called the Portasort. It fits into the trunk of a car and contains a laptop computer, custom database and identification devices.
``Our goal is to make PolyAna smaller for the process line, to be mounted on the moving line,'' Mucci said. ``As it is more developed, the price will come down.''
The Science Museum in London has installed a PolyAna machine. Children can test plastic parts in the Challenge of Materials gallery, which exhibits the latest scientific developments in that field.
The system is used to identify plastics in cars, beer crates, appliances and computers.